Rice walloped by E. Carolina, 49-13

GREENVILLE, NC [SPORTS BLOG: Read the latest from the Eyewitness Sports team]

The junior receiver returned a kickoff 92 yards for a score and added two touchdown catches to help the Pirates beat winless Rice 49-13 on Saturday, bouncing back from last weekend's loss at SMU.

Harris matched his career-high with 128 yards receiving for the Pirates (4-3, 3-1 Conference USA), while Rob Kass -- a former starting quarterback who moved to tight end -- had his first career scoring catch to help East Carolina to a relatively stress-free win.

The Pirates led 21-3 by midway through the second quarter and never let the Owls (0-7, 0-3) make it closer than a two-possession game before blowing it open late. And much of that domination started with Harris, who has scored seven touchdowns in the past four games -- two rushing, three receiving and two by kickoff return to tie the school's single-season record.

It's a threat the Pirates haven't really had since Johnson became a first-round pick of the NFL's Tennessee Titans in 2008.

"I try to score every time they give me the ball," Harris said. "I know once the ball is in my hands, I can help my team make plays out there and move the ball downfield."

He's shown flashes of that ability before, but never quite like he this. He ran for a 25-yard score and had a 3-yard scoring catch against UCF on Sept. 26. Then last week he had a 77-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a 10-yard scoring run at SMU.

On Saturday, he gave East Carolina the early lead when he caught a short pass from Patrick Pinkney on the right side and raced in from 16 yards out on the game's first possession. Later, after Rice showed some life with an 80-yard touchdown pass from Nick Fanuzzi to Toren Dixon, Harris broke free near midfield on the ensuing kickoff and -- freed by blocks from Brandon Jackson and Darryl Reynolds -- raced down the right sideline all the way to the end zone for a 28-10 lead shortly before halftime.

Harris added a third score with about 11 minutes left and the outcome no longer in doubt, taking a short screen pass from Pinkney and running in untouched for a 7-yard touchdown that made it 42-13.

Coach Skip Holtz said Harris' big plays have increased as he grows more comfortable with being a college receiver after playing quarterback in high school.

"I think he's starting to understand how much you have to run at that position," Holtz said. "I think he's getting in better football shape. I think he's understanding what it's going to take to play 40 or 50 plays. Right now ... he's playing with an awful lot of confidence."

The Pirates had plenty to feel good about on offense, generating a season-high 459 total yards after scoring just 21 points in each of their past two games.

"That was big for our offense," Pinkney said. "It's just finishing drives. We're capable. And we showed that today."

Pinkney was 18-for-26 for 231 yards with two interceptions, though one came when he was hit while throwing -- and the Pirates forced a fumble on the return to get the ball right back and set up Kass' 2-yard scoring catch late in the first quarter.

That's not to say everything went great for the Pirates. Jackson struggled to consistently to shoulder the rushing load for the Pirates after Dominique Lindsay went down with a left ankle injury. Lindsay had run for 78 yards on 12 carries before going down on a pass play in the opening minutes of the second quarter.

Fanuzzi threw for 231 yards to lead Rice, which closed to within 28-13 and had the ball to start the fourth quarter before Dustin Lineback made a leaping interception near midfield and returned the ball to the Owls 20-yard line.

That's when the Pirates -- after watching Jackson repeatedly get stuffed for lost yardage -- turned to Giavanni Ruffin, who ran three straight times before punching it in from 7 yards out for a 35-13 lead with about 13 minutes left.

"This is a fragile football team right now," Rice coach David Bailiff said. "When bad things happen, the wheels start to come off. We have identified the problem and we just need to keep working on it. This game should not have ended with this score."

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